Photo by Catalina Kulczar


Jessica Brillhart: Leading the Way Into Immersive Space

2019 Film Keynote is opening new VR frontiers

When you listen to Jessica Brillhart talk about the “immersive space,” it sounds like science fiction. “You have to, in a lot of ways, convince someone that they’re somewhere else, where the world is much richer and goes much deeper than they can perceive,” she explains.

“It’s like extending beyond our biological ability to perceive the world.”

Again, it sounds like science fiction. But this immersive space is not only something humanity has been working on for a long time — it is poised for a big breakthrough. Since the dawn of human existence, we’ve spent a lot of energy developing languages, technologies and media for the purpose of telling stories and transporting our fellow humans to realities that are not their own. And whether we’re using our minds to construct these worlds or we’re watching them through the frame of a TV or cinema screen, the end goal is the same — we want to live in other worlds, even if only briefly.

Jessica Brillhart. Photo by Catalina Kulczar

Jessica Brillhart. Photo by Catalina Kulczar


But even at the height of our current storytelling technology, we’re just looking at these new worlds through some kind of frame. If we ever want to step through that frame and actually wander around worlds unlike our own, it’s going to take a confluence of technology and artistic craft to create real, engaging, immersive spaces. While technology is starting to catch up thanks to investments in consumer VR from the likes of Google and Facebook, there’s a small problem on the artistic side: VR is not a conventional medium.

“Filmmakers have a tendency to think that VR or any immersive content just means it’s a frame, but bigger,” says Brillhart, who has unravelled the language of traditional filmmaking and built a new one for the immersive space. She spent eight years working inside the great tech machine, serving as principal filmmaker for Google’s virtual reality division. There, she not only created films in VR, but also helped develop and test Google’s very cool Jump camera system, which films seamless 360-degree video that can be used to create VR content.

In that time, she has had a thoughtful reckoning with how very different making “films” in VR can be. For example, “… there are a lot of VR, they call themselves cinematic VR filmmakers. And they said, ‘Oh, you can’t edit, it’s not an editable medium.’ And I was like, ‘That’s kind of dumb.’ Because every medium is editable. We filter everything. Editing in the traditional sense probably doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean editing as a concept doesn’t work.”


What Brillhart will bring with her to SXSW in March is the same thing she took with her when she left the tech giant and started her own production company, Vrai Pictures — a wholly new and unique language of filmmaking in the immersive space. Think of it this way: if making cinema as we know it now is a form of photography, creating immersive cinema is a form of sculpting. Instead of meticulously filled frames in motion, Brillhart and the filmmakers who will learn this language from her will be sculpting worlds and thinking about how their audiences will move around in them.

Once filmmakers begin to speak differently about how to build worlds in the immersive space, they can begin to tackle VR’s other big challenge: it’s a very chaotic space. But to hear Brillhart talk about her wide array of upcoming projects, it almost sounds like the chaos is a good thing. In the coming year, she will produce projects at Vrai (which translates from French as “true” or “real”) that range from an immersive audio experience for a brand you might recognize to an augmented reality tool to a VR series. It’s all part of continuing to figure out what creates value for the audience, and it’s part of a larger conversation she is leading and which the audience for her SXSW Film Keynote will get to experience.

“I love the fact I’m going to be doing the film talk at South By,” she explains. “Because it’s just that seeing something like (SXSW 2008 premiere) Second Skin reminded me that there are people out there trying to translate this stuff, too. South By was one of the first places to embrace nerd culture, so it feels a little bit like coming home.”

Jessica Brillhart will be a Film Keynote speaker at the 2019 SXSW Conference on Tuesday, March 12.

SXSW will be held March 8-17, 2019. The Film Badge gets you primary access to all SXSW Film events including Film Keynotes and Featured Sessions, world premieres, round tables, workshops, parties, and more. See you in March!

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Join us for unparalleled discovery, networking, and inspiration at the 2019 SXSW Conference & Festivals in Austin, Texas from March 8-17.